an antique Russian Orthodox icon

I was taught that Jesus established one church, but it doesn’t seem that you agree.  How many churches did Jesus establish?

Jesus established one church.  There are, however, many expressions of that church.  those of us who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism learned that there are four “marks” of the church: she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  In this case, even though we talk about “churches” in the plural, there is One Church because we share one faith, one baptism, one Lord.  Each of the Eastern Catholic Churches agrees to share the sacraments (or, as they are called in the East, “mysteries”) with members of any other Catholic Church.

The multiplicity of churches is simply the way in which the gospel of Christ has been spread and lived in different places by people with different customs and traditions.

This may seem strange for members of the Roman Catholic Church who have thought that they alone were Catholic.  Yet, even in the Roman Catholic Church we have seen different practices that grew in one area and sometimes spread to other areas and other times not.

This is similar to the way in which the different churches that form the One Church have developed.  Julius Caesar begins his Gallic Wars by commenting that “all of Gaul is divided into three parts… These parts differ from each other in language, customs, and laws.”  We can see a similar reality in the church – there is one church, but she has many parts differentiated by language, customs, and even canon (church) law.

Well, if there was just one church, how did we get so many expressions of it?

As we noted previously, there is just one church, but there are many expressions of that church.  To fully understand this situation we have to go back to the time of the apostles and work forward.  When Paul went around preaching the good news, he established local churches (the word he uses is the Greek term ekklesia, meaning “the community called out”).  By the close of the first century, the churches each had a type of structure in which a bishop (Greek: episkopos) was in charge.  There were priests (presbyteroi) and deacons (diakonoi) to assist the bishop.  The development of this structure is clearly described by Saint Ignatius of Antioch in letters he wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome.

These “city churches” communicated with Paul via letters (most of which have been lost) and with each other.  Most of the letters of Paul that we retain in Scripture are his responses to these letters in which he corrects problems or offers encouragement to the local communities.

As time went by, the churches in local regions began to associate with each other and with a metropolitan – a bishop who headed a particular geographic region and in the sixth century became known as a “patriarch.”  The “pentarchy” was composed of the five major Sees, or, as the Latin Church calls them, “Dioceses.”  These were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  Issues that arose within the churches of these patriarchal Sees were addressed by the patriarch and the synod of bishops.  when a problem crossed the boundaries, Rome was invited to resolve the difference or, if the problem was big enough, an ecumenical council was called.

Within each of these patriarchates, local churches retained their status of individual churches.  So, for example, Constantinople lead the Greek Church and, later, the Russian Church until the close of the sixteenth century.  Antioch would eventually develop into five different churches, and so on.  Eventually there were twenty-two (or, perhaps, twenty-three) churches that were identified as churches in their own right.


Excerpt from Faulk, Edward. 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches.  (Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ) 2007.